From Good to Great

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

Niels Gram sees the truth of this old saying played out weekly at Community Futures Nanaimo, where he works as a small business developer. Since June of 2006, Gram has helped people coming through Service Canada’s self employment program to plan and launch their businesses. The business development process starts when a client walks in the door with a business idea. Most people know what they want to do, but don’t know how to get started. Gram’s job is to give them the tools they need to evaluate their projects, and from there, to work with them to create solid business plans. Once they have launched their businesses, he meets with them to review financial statements and to generally offer support.

Gram didn’t start his business development career with Community Futures. Instead of starting small, he started big. Prior to 1999, Gram spent eight years working as a purchaser and business developer for Teekay Shipping, a deep sea, oil transport firm, based in Vancouver: one of the largest shipping firms in the world.

Gram’s exit from Teekay was a matter of his personality, beliefs, and inclinations coming into line with an opportunity. "In a corporation it is very difficult to have a voice. Everyone is singing off the corporate song sheet. If you speak up, you kind of find yourself outside the circle,” he says. He had been looking for something to do that suited him better for a while. Also, "I had the entrepreneurial itch,” says Gram. He had heard about an unfinished resort in Mexico, that the owners weren’t going to be able to deal with, and thought; well hey, that isn’t that much money really, running a resort might be kind off fun! He gave notice at Teekay, sold his house, and then, right around Christmas, he got a call. No, he couldn’t have the resort. No; the owners were going to keep it. What a Christmas present.

Gram reacted by doing exactly what he had intended to: he moved to Mexico to start a resort. The only thing he had to go off this time was "a raw patch of land”, and the costs for going from the bottom up would be much higher than the cost of taking over something that had been mostly finished. He decided it didn’t matter. His objective was to turn the patch of land into an eco-resort that would fit in with the surrounding community and leave a relatively small ecological footprint. The plans he drew up had all of the architecture raised above ground so as not to harm the coastal ecosystem. He intended to have the power for the resort provided by wind and solar energy, and to bring some of his clients in as learning tourists; volunteers in local eco-causes such as botany and beach patrol.

For three years, Gram worked feverishly. He and his wife put up the equity from their home to back the initial costs. Business development for another company had given him a business background, but even that hadn’t fully prepared him for being an entrepreneur. "I had never even done a business plan before,” says Gram. He re-wrote that first business plan 12 times. "By the end, it looked pretty sharp,” says Gram proudly.

It took Gram three years of planning and scrimping, but he still had only about two-thirds of the money he needed. To cover the cost of the resort project, he would have to attract investors, but as scandals rocked the stock market through 2000 and 2001, that became harder and harder to do.

‘It was incredibly scary,” says Gram. However, despite the stock market problems, there was still a great deal of interest taken in his project. Because of this, Gram believes that it would have been possible to forge ahead and start construction with only partial funding secured, but he refused. "I was determined not to leave a big hole in the ground,” says Gram. Big holes, as Gram calls them are common in Mexico. Projects are started on speculation and the funding never shows up. These empty dug up lots and partially constructed buildings damage and degrade the communities they’re left in.

But Gram and his wife could not live indefinitely, without income or certainty. Reasonable time to complete the project ran out. "I kind off returned home with my tail between my legs,” says Gram.

It would have been easy to remain downcast but, "I’m not much of a mourner,” says Gram. He moved on quickly, took what he had learned with his Mexican not-quite-success, and used it as fuel for starting other entrepreneurial endeavours. In 2002, he established an advertising company, Pin High Media, which catered to companies trying to reach the golfing demographic. Before starting Pin High Media, in fact, almost as soon as he arrived back in Canada, Gram found that what he had learned while trying to start a business was actually invaluable, and that others wanted his new knowledge to help them get started. He began doing business development projects with First Nations groups.

By the time he arrived at Community Futures, Gram had almost eight years experience as an entrepreneur behind him. "It [the experience in Mexico] launched me on a new career of small business development,” says Gram. "Things went from good to great.”

The great is that Gram believes strongly in what he is now doing. Gram feels that small business generation is a growing trend. And in 2006, 98 percent of all registered businesses in B.C. were classified as small. Gram feels this is a good thing. A large percentage of the self employed are people whose ethics and personalities did not fit with their old jobs, and more traditional ways of doing things, and many are environmentally oriented.

Unfortunately, not everyone who starts a business will make it work. Even with his extensive business background, Gram’s first endeavour wasn’t a financial success. But over 60 percent of Community Future’s clients are still self employed at the two-year mark. As to what makes some businesses wither while others grow strong, Gram says that simplicity of the original idea is one good predictor of success. Other predictors include the presence of a strong work ethic, and desire to learn continuously. Perhaps surprisingly, Gram places "having an abundance mentality”—the belief that there is enough success for everybody– right up at the top of the list.

"Co-operative competition is based in a belief that there is enough pie for everyone to succeed,” writes Gram in an article that he published in The Nanaimo Daily News during 2007. "This does not imply compromise in sharing a finite pie, but rather working co-operatively to increase the overall size of the pie.”

Gram points to ways in which companies that band together to achieve maximum good for all end up increasing productivity. One example might be multiple small businesses co-ordinating shipments so that the cost to each is reduced; a model known in business circles as co-opitition. Gram also says that in business, a person needs to give what he wants to get; something that is much easier to do when a person isn’t in a hording/lacking mindset. Gram believes that even greed is anchored in a mindset of lack; if a person is perpetually fearful about the disappearing "pile of stuff”, she is probably going to take; take as much as she possibly can, regardless of what that taking does to others, and whether it does her any good or not.

Mark Holland is a sustainable development planner with the planning firm, Holland Barrs and Associates. Gram knows him as "a wealth of information.” Holland does a type of business and community planning that strives to keep the needs of people and other components of the environment in balance with each other. He explains that there is a divide between the traditional idea of capitalism, and traditional respect for the environment, but, that it doesn’t have to be that way. "Deep ecology almost doesn’t recognize human beings,” Holland says, "but sustainability recognizes that we are one species of many. Ultimately, we are a species, and ultimately, we do things for ourselves. Sustainable development is people oriented environmentalism.”

In our current society, most of the things that people do for themselves—learning how to fish so to speak– are rooted in capitalism, the strict definition of which is the exchange of value for value. Based on this definition, Holland says that even trees are practicing capitalists: carbon dioxide is exchanged for oxygen, both the trees and the atmosphere benefit, and at the end of the day, if the trees have grown and thrived, they have realized a profit.

Life is good. It can be great. Like trees, people have the potential to grow and thrive, to give to the community, both human and otherwise, and to still get what they need.

Mark Holland says that: "We [humans] are the species running the planet.” And economics are one of the biggest engines we have helping us to do this. Niels Gram says that self employment encourages ethical business practice because "operating as myself, I have no shield. It is my decision if I follow an ethical or environmentally friendly path.” For better or for worse, both Gram and Holland are right. Being or becoming self-employed is one way to get up there, get out there, get behind the wheel, and start doing the driving.